Monday, April 22, 2013

Pink Pills for Pale People

Samples of advertisements for Dr. Williams' Pink Pills for Pale People, ca. 1912. The drawings for these advertisements were made by a Schenectady artist, Margaret Curran-Smith. From Collections of Grems-Doolittle Library. 

Patent medicines -- packaged drugs whose contents are incompletely disclosed -- were plentiful and profitable from after the Civil War through the early twentieth century. Before the first Pure Food and Drug Laws were passed, the manufacturers and promoters of patent medicines made millions of dollars from a credulous public eager for cures for a variety of ailments (and many of whom were unable to afford the regular care of a doctor). One of those patent medicines was Dr. Williams' Pink Pills for Pale People, which were manufactured, distributed, and marketed in part by W.T. Hanson in Schenectady.

Image of Willis T. Hanson from drawing in newspaper. From Hanson surname file. 

There was no "Dr. Williams" involved with the Pink Pills, but early on, there was a Dr. Jackson connected to the product. In 1890, a Canadian physician, Dr. William Jackson, sold the rights to his Pink Pills for Pale People, a "fatigue remedy," to George Taylor Fulford, a Canadian entrepreneur. Sometime soon after, W.T. Hanson, a Schenectady businessman and druggist, secured the sole distribution rights for Dr. Williams Pink Pills for Pale People in the United States. Hanson was at the center of three separate but seemingly connected companies: the W.T. Hanson Company, the Hanson-Fulford Company, and Dr. Williams' Medicine Company. The executive office, advertising department, factory, and shipping department of all three companies was located at 147 Centre Street (now Broadway). A number of prominent area men, including Edwin Conde of Schenectady and Dr. Alexander Duncan Langmuir of Albany, served on the Dr. Williams' Medicine Company's board of directors. Conde also served for a time as the publicity promoter for the company.
Package of Dr. Williams' Pink Pills for Pale People. Packages of 40 pills were sold for 50 cents from druggists or directly from the Schenectady manufacturer. Image from the Kansas Historical Society's  Kansapedia "Cool Things" topics (

The advertisements for Dr. Williams Pink Pills for Pale People, like those for other patent medicines of the period, offered miraculous personal testimonies, crediting the Pink Pills with rescuing themselves or their children from the brink of death. Statements such as "I tried them and firmly believe that if I had not I should be in my grave right now" and "That Dr. Williams' Pink Pills saved my life is beyond doubt," were common. The medicine claimed to cure chorea, "locomotor ataxia, partial paralyxia, seistica, neuralgia rheumatism, nervous headache, the after-effects of la grippe, palpitation of the heart, pale and sallow complexions, [and] all forms of weakness in male or female." In one advertisement, the Pink Pills were even credited with curing paralysis, after a person took the pills for four months!

The notorious advertisement in which Dr. Williams' Pink Pills for Pale People  is credited with curing a  boy's paralysis.  From Hanson surname file.

Advertisements for Dr. Williams' Pink Pills for Pale People can be found in newspapers from across the country. In 1901, the advertising efforts of Dr. Williams' Medicine Company were the subject of a glowing article in the Omaha Daily News, which heralded the company as "an example of what can be accomplished by young men in this twentieth century of keen business rivalry and ceaseless competition."

As the twentieth century dawned, patent medicines came under increased scrutiny. In an article in Collier's entitled "The Great American Fraud," Samuel Hopkins Adams took on the patent medicine industry.  Adams listed Dr. Williams' Pink Pills for Pale People in a group of nostrums he referred to as "the most conspicuous of this kind now being foisted on the public," and noted the composition of the pills as "green vitriol, starch and sugar." Adams' articles led to the passage of the first Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906. The Act required more accurate labeling of medicines, and curbed some of the most misleading, overstated, or fraudulent claims that appeared on the labels of patent medicines.

In 1912, the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station conducted an analysis of Dr. Williams' Pink Pills for Pale People. The author of a subsequent report could not resist commenting: "in using the pills the patient is directed first to purge the bowels, then take the pills, bathe frequently, keep the bowels regular, and partake of a nutritious diet. The thought occurs that perhaps the desired result might well be secured by following all of this treatment except the taking of the pills." Dr. Pincus Rothberg, a chemist with the Bureau of Chemistry at the Port of New York, also analyzed the pills and found the composition of the pills to be more than 37 percent sugar, 13 percent iron sulphate, 11 percent potassium carbonate, 15 percent starch, and 17 percent vegetable substance, with traces of talc and a small quantity of strychnin. Rothberg's analysis was published in The Composition of Certain Patent and Proprietary Medicines in 1917. The examination of the Pink Pills led to a court battle; in 1917, the Dr. Williams Medicine Company was found guilty of misbranding its product.

Although the Dr. Williams Medicine Company continued to exist in Schenectady in the early 1920s, it was surely in its decline as the tide turned away from the patent medicine era. In 1922, popular rhyming syndicated columnist Walt Mason singled out Dr. Williams Pink Pills for Pale People in two different columns disparaging patent medicines. "And then at last we're ailing and getting worse each day, and pink pills, unavailing, seem made to throw away," he wrote in one, and "I take pink pills to cure my ills, my gout and flu and tetter; I swallow ten, and now and then I think I'm feeling better" in another. The terminology of the patent medicines began to be used as references to touted would-be panaceas that have little actual benefit; in 1926, a congressman derided a bill before the House of Representatives as being "pink pills for pale people." As early as the 1930s, patent medicines, including Dr. Williams' Pink Pills for Pale People, were being exhibited as artifacts of a bygone era.

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